Prepared by Colette Williams
“Fasting is the most powerful spiritual discipline of all the Christian disciplines. Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform your life.”[i]
Selwyn Hughes (Every Day with Jesus) says, “The discipline of fasting does wonders for the soul.”
Jesus did it, and so did Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, John the Baptist, Paul, Martin Luther and John Wesley. It’s been part of Christian practice down through history.
While there are no actual Biblical instructions to fast, it was assumed that people would. Jesus taught, “When you fast…”[ii] not if you fast. And when some men challenged Jesus about why his disciples didn’t fast, he responded by saying that there was no need for them to fast as long as he was with them in the flesh. “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”[iii] (italics added)
Take a moment to read Acts 13:1-5. This was the start of Paul’s first missionary journey, and it was initiated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, with spectacular results. It was all made possible because the believers had positioned themselves where they could hear from God, through “worshipping the Lord and fasting.”[iv] And prayer and fasting again were part of their preparation before they sent off Paul & Barnabas with the laying on of hands.[v]
Why has prayer and fasting become such a forgotten discipline, at least in our tradition? Is it because we’re too soft? Probably. Is it because we have no real expectation of personal spiritual growth? Possibly. Other factors might include ignorance, lack of teaching, or our need for instant gratification. Whatever the reason, it would seem that we are denying ourselves the opportunity of a more intimate relationship with God, and whatever growth and blessing he wants to give us when we set aside this time for him.
Stories abound of people who have deepened their relationship with God, added power to their prayer lives, discovered God’s guidance, received revelation, increased concentration, improved their physical well-being, and experienced a personal revival that has led them into being used as a blessing to others.
Our primary motivation must always be to worship God and to seek his will[vi], otherwise we’re just going on a diet!
In the Old Testament there are many occasions where God called his people to corporate prayer and fasting.[vii] Sometimes kings or religious leaders called the people to fast.[viii] And when Jonah finally obeyed God and delivered his prophetic word to Nineveh, the people showed their repentance by declaring a national fast.[ix] These group fasts were in times of national emergency, times of humbling themselves before God, seeking his direction or asking for protection. An attitude of national repentance was often reinforced by a period of prayer and fasting.[x] The principles contained in 2 Chronicles 7:14 might logically be expressed through group fasting and prayer.
Churches today engage in corporate fasting in response to the leading of the Spirit, providing they are of one mind and genuinely seeking healing, repentance, guidance, or blessing on their church, community or nation. God will surely honour his people’s commitment to seek his face in this way.
Prayer and fasting go together, and you can’t have fasting without prayer, to be true to the Biblical concept. But can’t we have all the benefits by just praying, without the fasting?
Someone has expressed it like this:
Fasting deals with the two great barriers to the Holy Spirit that are erected by man’s … nature. These are the stubborn self-will of the soul and the insistent, self-gratifying appetites of the body. Rightly practised, fasting brings both soul and body into subjection to the Holy Spirit.[xi]
Fasting allows us to lay down as much ‘self’ as we possibly can, so that the Holy Spirit can have his way with us, and bring us through to wholeness and healing. Fasting changes us, not God. It breaks down the barriers between us and God, allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal the things that control us such as unconfessed sin, lack of forgiveness, pride, anger, jealousy, bitterness or fear.
Jesus gives us a warning about fasting for show, as the Pharisees did.[xii] We are not to flaunt the fact that we are fasting, in order to make ourselves look spiritually superior. At the same time, if we are fasting we need the support of other Christians who are praying for us while we fast, and we would also want to share the blessings of our fast with others who might benefit from doing it themselves. Again, motive is all-important here. If we truly want to worship and honour God and hear from him, we can’t go wrong.
Some people should not fast because of medical reasons. Those who are very thin or have an eating disorder, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, very sick people or those with a chronic illness should not fast. Be sure to consult your doctor if in any doubt, especially if planning a medium or longer fast.
Prayer and fasting can be of any duration, from missing one meal, through to a 40-day fast. It is advisable to start small, and then work up to longer periods if desired. Some people fast for one day, three days or seven days. Others fast regularly for one day a week, or one day a month. It’s a very individual thing, and is really between you and God. Those who opt for a longer fast will still have to go about their daily activities, but will do so with a greater prayer focus. They may excuse themselves from the meal table and use that time to pray, or use other opportunities that present themselves for further prayer.
It is wise to prepare yourself physically and spiritually for this adventure, including arranging your schedule as far as possible to allow for time in prayer and reduced physical demands. Preparing yourself spiritually could include making sure there is no unconfessed sin, or anything else that might act as a hindrance to your communication with God.
There are many more helpful hints of a practical nature to make the fasting experience more successful. For instance, you can choose to drink water only, or fruit juice and water, especially if going on a longer fast. It is wise to eat smaller meals in the days leading up to it (contrary to our natural inclinations!) and cut back on caffeine and sugar. Likewise, in the days after the fast, it is better to start with fruit and raw vegetables, and gradually ease back into your regular pattern of eating. For a very comprehensive and practical guide to prayer and fasting, visit www.ccci.org/growth/growing-closer-to-god/how-to-fast , which will outline the various stages of fasting you will encounter, and answer any questions you may have, including some you hadn’t thought of!
[i] Dr. Bill Bright, Campus Crusade for Christ Int.
[ii] Matthew 6:16
[iii] Matthew 9:15
[iv] Acts 13:2
[v] Acts 13:3
[vi] Zechariah 7:5
[vii] Leviticus 23:27, Joel 2:15,
[viii] 2 Chronicles 20:1-4, Ezra 8:21-23
[ix] Jonah 3:3-5
[x] 1 Samuel 7:6
[xi] Karin Puttner, “Why Fast?” – Christian Woman Magazine, May/June 09
[xii] Matthew 6:16-18